Season 1, Episode 4: “A Cup of Time” (F. Harvey Frost, director; Barbara Sachs, writer) (24 October, 1987)
More than one character gets tangled up looking for the fountain of youth.
Birdie, a social worker from Curious Goods’ neighborhood (aka, one seen in this episode and never again) alerts the crew to a rash of disappearances among the homeless people she works with. Micki, Ryan, and Jack investigate, discovering a link to a newly popular rock star, while Jack tries to fend off Birdie’s advances. [Note for the future: see season 3, episode 14, “Repetition,” written by Jennifer Lynch for a very satisfying episode that features a social worker.]
The Cheese: Rock star in question, of whom Ryan is a fan, is named Lady Die. Whose youth depends on killing others. Yes, show, WE GET IT. / Biggest wedge of cheese award goes to Lady Die’s hit single: a hard rock version of “I’m a Little Teapot.” Of all the public domain songs, that’s what you choose?
The Sins: Gluttony and Vanity
The Curiosities: The writer and director of this episode never filled these roles in the series again. Why, I wonder? F. Harvey Frost reads like the pseudonym of a chilly exec. Writer Sachs was a consulting producer; she’d worked on Friday the 13th, Part VII, which is truly terrible.
Erin: I blame summertime [2020, under Coronavirus quarantine, no less] for the fact that it took me until episode four to realize the pattern: each episode’s object corresponds to one (or more) of the seven deadly sins: wrath (the girl with the doll); greed (the pen); envy and lust (the ugly-ass cupid statue); and vanity (cup). I mean, a decade-plus of Catholic school and it takes me this long? Inexcusable. [Note: Prior posts in our blog that associate each episode with a sin or two were retrofitted to include this detail, after Erin’s revelation.] If each episode has a touch of the old-school morality play vibe, in this instance it actually is paired with (and in some ways masks) the more important moral point of the episode: the way Lady Die/Sarah preys on the homeless because she knows no one will care (the police sure don’t; that’s timely) and masks the way she is “draining” people for her own success by hiding it under good works. Birdie is similarly tempted, first by trying to appear younger, then by the cup itself, even though she is presented as a thoughtful, moral person. In contrast to Sarah, she doesn’t need to drain an already vulnerable person; she and the homeless guy connect and it reminds her what vitality really is.
Kristopher: Yes, the doubling going on here was nice to see; Birdie and Lady Die are both charitable givers to the street community, and are also both struggling with vanity, fear of aging. That moment of connection after she throws away the cup and sobs is cool. [Retro-critical metacommentary: Geez, I sound like such a douche.]
E: There’s also the whole protein drink subplot, which seems irrelevant for most of the episode. I actually thought Jack was lying and it was some experiment related to the shop. But weirdly, I think it connects to the Birdie plot in this respect: If I’m reading the ending correctly, it suggests she’s adopting the pickpocket girl; providing a home and nurturing for the next generation without having to give birth. Jack is creating a protein/energy drink, with a side-effect of nymphomania. Birdie wants Jack; Jack ignores this. Yet at the end, Birdie becomes a mom without conventional procreation, and Jack has figured out the formula for boundless energy without nymphomania. What are you trying to say, show?
K: The energy drink seems cleverly tied to the theme in that Jack, too, seems to be striving for some form of youthfulness in his experiment. I wasn’t remarking much on these thematics of the episode, which I wasn’t liking very much until Birdie became more of a focus. This show, even in its weaker moments, has pretty carefully layered scripts.
E: The stop-motion (?) vines were a cool effect, and I liked the way the lore of the “swapper’s vines” fit into the object. I wish Jack had mentioned a bit more about it; I tried to google it, but most of the results were for spouse swapping.
K: Hot. And, yes, the vines seem to be stop-motion when they start to emerge from the cup, and then for the shots where they twist around the necks of the victims, it’s filmed backwards (done with the camera upside-down so that when the film is projected the correct way, things that were shot forwards appear backwards. In other words, they start with the vine around the victim’s neck and slowly pull it off while filming; when projected, it looks like it’s wrapping around the neck, rather than loosening from it. John Carpenter used this effect in The Fog when the fog ‘retreats’ from certain areas.
E: I’d say a hard-rock version of “I’m a Little Teapot” is ridiculous, but I’ve heard weirder.
K: I hope I never have to hear that again. Also, the little girl’s Canadian accent is extremely pronounced when she sings the “Little Teapot” song: “short and stoot; here is my handle, here is my spoot.”
E: I noticed that too!
Season 1, Episode 5: “Hellowe’en” (Timothy Bond, director; William Taub, writer) (31 October, 1987)
A family reunion from hell when Uncle Lewis stops by.
The Goods: A Halloween party at the Curious Goods store goes south when two guys sneak into the vault just as Uncle Lewis’s spirit shows up and attempts to escape hell with the help of a demon and an amulet. Hijinks ensue.
The Cheese: It’s an Uncle Lewis episode, so, Uncle Lewis, with his Colonel Sanders accent and bolo tie. / Lewis’s wife, Grace, died from neglect. Subtle.
Sins: If it’s Uncle Lewis, it’s always greed.
Kristopher: Hellowe’en spelled the UK way. The Canadian influence?
Erin: Very likely. I didn’t find a lot of subtext in this episode; it seemed a pretty straightforward “escape from hell by any means necessary” plot. (That I can recall enough “escape from hell” plots to make one “standard” says something about my viewing habits.) That being said, if taken with “A Cup of Life,” there is a shared theme of wanting more than you deserve at the expense of others. That theme of entitlement is mirrored briefly with Ryan’s “friends” who sneak down to the basement because they know the owners and feel they have the right. Some cool effects: I liked the way the apparition of Lewis appeared like an image out of a staticky TV set. Also, I’d be curious as to how accurate the object lore/old dudes chanting at each other bits are.
Things that seemed “off” or troubling: 1) Jack takes over Ryan’s creepy factor: Ryan was surprisingly not creepy toward Micki (no comment on her outfit or off-color remarks); meanwhile, Jack’s dressed as Merlin making boob jokes at the expense of two of the party attendees. Given that he later he uses their own toxic masculine posturing against the two guys in the truck, perhaps it was supposed to be an act? Either way, off-putting. 2) Greta the demon. By switching her from child to an actress with dwarfism had an unfortunate tinge of associating difference with monstrosity. Not untypical, I know.
Question for you: Who was staring through the window at Micki? Was it supposed to be Greta or Uncle Lewis? [Read on for answer.]
K: I also was wondering if you’d find much subtext here, as I didn’t. Lewis’s “ambition” and “greed” are things he, himself highlights, in his manufactured story of his murder of his wife by neglect. At most, this episode seems to deepen the sense of the two characters’ “soft hearts,” along with Marshak’s own soft heart at the end with his story of Grace.
Marshak being creepily misogynistic with two women, performing basic magic on their cleavage is silly and seemed out of character to me. This “playful” magic is balanced later, when he shows (for the first time?) that he’s something of a sorcerer, and something of a pining would-be lover. The story between Marshak and Lewis gets a bit more complex here. But if there is subtext, it is in the playful magic vs. occult sorcery and playful manipulation/flirting/sexual harassment vs. a sense of true unrequited love.
You’re right that the episode is not unique in its unfortunate likening of a small person to both a child and a demon. That line: “Yes, the midget, she’s really a demon.” Ugh. The idea that this body be both infantilized and a marker of monstrosity is awful. And then I think: Hey, this is one of those shows that gives roles to small people!
Three things that I thought were very curious and/or cool: 1) a hidden room in the antiques shop, makes me wonder if they’ll make this a part of the show—it’s such a cozy space and would serve to make the shop feel much more like a home base. So far, I haven’t been able to get a real sense of the shop’s layout in terms of where these characters inhabit space, where they actually live. They gather in the main room, but having this baroque, cozy room would be a nice touch. [Note from the future: the hidden room never reappears, but we do get a better sense of how Curious Goods accommodates its dwellers, eventually.] 2) Lewis’s dramatic exit seems a reference to both Nosferatu (the cock crows, and morning light destroys the shadow monster), and Hammer’s Dracula with Christopher Lee, where Peter Cushing rips away a curtain after literally leaping upon the window. (I like your point that he appears first as a flickering TV image, or a kind of Pepper’s Ghost illusion, all kinds of references to the illusory moving image.) 3) To answer your question above, I wonder if the opening scene with Micki being observed is an homage to The Spiral Staircase (1946)? I thought it was someone spying on Micki from her closet, through clothing, though—that it was actually a curtain makes more sense, but lessens the chance this was an allusion. And yet the observer is watching Micki get dressed in excessive makeup. In The Spiral Staircase (1946), the killer kills women whom he sees as deficient; this woman, he sees as somehow dirty (it’s implied she might be a sex worker); later, he targets a mute woman. The fact that the “demon” comes in another body that would be “deficient” to the killer of Spiral Staircase, along with the fact that the Abraham Stark Mortuary was established in 1946, the same year as the film, still has me wondering. Probably not enough, though.
E: Well, that would give an added resonance; if it was an intentional tribute, and the focus on bodies suggest it was Greta at the window. In fact, she asks Lewis which kind of body he would prefer: man or woman. (Surprisingly progressive Uncle Lewis: “I don’t care, as long as it’s alive.”) That Greta asks the question could be viewed as a troubling suggestion of “body envy” on her part.
K: Further evidence that the writer sees her body as a figuration of lack.
Wax notes an interesting anecdote that the production of this episode was a bit troubled. The original director (who had done Hammer films … I’d read this after I made my comment about Hammer above!) wasn’t covering anything in his shooting; he was just doing long, single takes. He was fired. Then, the music for the episode (a 38-minute score) was erased due to a technical glitch and had to be written in a day and a half (Wax 2015, 47-8).
E: I’ve been curious about the music used in the show, especially the music that features lyrics. Were they written for the show, or purchased? Apparently, the instrumental score for the first couple of seasons was released as a soundtrack album!
Critical Rewatch #1
Friday the 13th: The Series aired in syndication from 1987 to 1990. It boasts a large fanbase but almost no scholarly commentary. This episode-by-episode critical blog on the series is part of a research project by Erin Giannini and Kristopher Woofter that will include the series in a scholarly monograph on horror anthology TV series in the Reagan era.